Crossing the White Line
Cyclists, motorists struggle to cope with sharing the road
By Kendra R. ChamberlainPosted Feb 1, 2012
Mayor-president Melvin “Kip” Holden was quick to assure both the media and other cyclists in the community that the tragic accident – one cyclist killed, the other in the hospital – that occurred two weeks ago was not an issue of bikes lanes, but instead bad driving.
“A wider roadway would not have necessarily dictated that a biker or pedestrian, or a car, would not have been hit by a person who was intoxicated,” Mayor Holden was quoted in The Advocate, following the incident.
The incident shook the community – not just other cyclists, but runners, joggers, pedestrians, even drivers who commute across town. Everyone felt a sting.
The Mayor’s rhetoric didn’t stop the community – whether riders or drivers – from voicing concern about the roads in Baton Rouge – instead, it served to initiate a dialogue looking to more clearly, and physically, define the relationship between the burgeoning, non-motorist, commuter community, and the rest of the city drivers.
Two wheel transportation
Martin is the founder of the Baton Rouge Advocates for Safe Streets (BRASS), a six-year-old cycling advocacy organization. He is also a commuter, meaning that he has no car. Six years ago, he started BRASS as a way to help a small community of bike riders some recognition on the road. Now, his organization is one of the bigger bike clubs, and hold weekly rides, offers bike maintenance and mechanic services, and is looking to open up a co-op.
The expansion and success of his organization is just as much a testament to his leadership as it is an indication of the growing community of cyclists here in Baton Rouge.
Commuters, as they are called, are not nearly as rare as they once were – though they are still are a small, tight-knit group.
Travis Hans is one active member of the community. He owns the shop Mid City Bikes on Government, and said he uses his bicycle as his preferred method of travel, though he does own a few vehicles.
“I recently was able to get my son in a school in the area, so I no longer have to drive daily,” Hans said. “I drive maybe once or twice a week.”
In light of the recent accident on Perkins Rd., Hans presents a striking image. Standing in his shop, he pointed to a bright green bucket-shaped attachment connected to the handlebars of his bike.
“That’s what he sits in, and we ride around,” Hans said, referring to his two-year-old son.
I asked Hans if he ever felt afraid riding around town on the road with cars.
“It’s definitely dangerous,” he said. “Scary is more relevant.”
(Hans noted that now that he has a son, he tends to take more safe roads than he once did).
To an avid car-driver, that seems like a tough-as-nails stance to take on something as common as commuting.
Hans’ opinion on the matter isn’t all that unique here in Baton Rouge. Not anymore, at least.
Clayton Weeks is another commuter, and not surprisingly, he works at another bicycle shop: Capital City Cyclery, located on Essen Dr.
“I have three or four rear lights on my bike, all the time, day or night,” said Weeks, who travels down Perkins Road twice a day to get to and from his job. “I ride past [the ghost bike] every day.”
Weeks, who also has a car and prefers to ride his bicycle, is very familiar with the perils of sharing the road.
“Crossing traffic is the most dangerous part of the bike – much more dangerous than going with traffic,” he explained. “There’s a lot of variables when I’m making the decisions on what roads to take.”
Weeks said that both safety and efficiency play a role in his decisions when planning routes.
“If there is a side street, it’s the cyclist’s responsibility to take those side streets,” Weeks explained. “For the most part, I try to take those, but going down Perkins, there really is no other feasible route to get [to work].”
The problem, according to Weeks, are the intersections. The side streets are (theoretically) slower in terms of traffic speed. But side streets present their own problems, especially if they are big enough to have lights.
“Typically when I’m riding, I’m riding assertively. I’m riding down Perkins, I’m in the far right lane, and I’m riding with a little bit of speed beneath my belt – I’m not going four miles an hour, I’m trying to go as fast as I can,” Weeks said. “I want to be a part of traffic, I don’t want to be in opposition to traffic. I want everyone to treat me like they would expect a car to react. That way, it’s predictable on both sides of the equation.”
For the most part, motorists do a good job of giving cyclists enough room, and even waiting, if they have to, until the opportunity arises to pass a bike. But sometimes, the relationship isn’t nearly as mutually respectful as it could be.
Sore muscles and growing pains
Incidents like Crowson’s death are tragic and, thankfully, relatively rare. But close calls are pretty common – in fact, Hans told us about one incident that happened over the weekend.
According to Hans, a motorist pulled into a group of cyclists near the intersection of Perkins Rd. and Kenilworth – the same area, Hans noted, that Crowson was killed.
Hans said that the vehicle “bumped into” a cyclist, resulting in a broken mirror on the vehicle.
“When the police showed up, they wanted to ticket the fellow that hit the mirror,” Hans said.
Legally, motorists are required to give bicycle-riders a berth of three feet. Most cyclists we spoke to agreed that some motorists follow the law, and some don’t.
Weeks attributed close calls to naïveté on the part of the drivers.
“It’s out of ignorance,” Weeks said. “Because they don’t ride bikes, they don’t understand that other half of the equation.” The most dangerous situations come when motorists seem to lose patience with cyclists sharing the road – either the motorist will try to pass a cyclist without enough space, or, in more extreme cases, verbally or physically assault the cyclist. But it’s not happening nearly as often as it once was.
“Rarely has it gotten to be so close that I’m worried,” Weeks said. “Every now and again, people will yell at me.”
“Ten years ago, you got bottles thrown at you for riding your bicycle through town. Very rarely do I even hear stories of that today.”
The good news, for motorists and cyclists alike, is that we’re all getting more accustomed to having cyclists on the road.
It makes sense that a cyclist would prefer to have his or her own designated lane to ride in. From a driver’s perspective, it makes sense, too. If cyclists had their own lanes, drivers wouldn’t have to worry about passing them. But even Hans said having each busy street have a bike lane is unrealistic.
“That’s not easy,” he said. “Even in the best bicycle cultures in the U.S., they don’t have completely separate bicycle facilities to get across town. No one has that. We do know that as ridership increases, injury to cyclists, per capita, goes down – due to awareness,” Hans said.
An alternative to the bike lane is to paint sharrows on the streets that serve as main veins through the city but don’t have dedicated bike lanes. Sharrows (those arrows painted on some streets with a bicycle icon) are meant to indicate to both cyclists and motorists that the road is designated for both to share – hence the name.
“The sharrows are doing something, because they’re increasing awareness about cyclists,” Hans said.
Car culture mentality
After the accident on Perkins and Quail Run, the Mayor-president’s administration went on the defensive, a move that seemed to indicate the severity of the accident and the severity of the perceived backlash from the community.
Both Mayor Holden and his chief administrator John Carpenter emphasized that the incident was first and foremost the result of drunk driving, not unsafe streets.
The point is well taken. The suspect Joseph Branch, who was arrested on a second-offense DWI, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.307 – just under four times the legal limit.
The cyclist community is well aware of that.
“A bike lane would not have saved [Crowson],” Weeks said.
But for many concerned members of the community, the administration had missed the point.
“To me the point was not that they were on Perkins, but that they had to be on Perkins to get where they were going,” Martin said, adding that BRASS has been working to get bike facilities included in the new road construction projects in the Mayor’s Green Light Plan. Though the city has progressed in leaps and bounds in terms of bikeability in the last few years under the stewardship of Mayor Holden, the cycling community has suffered some setbacks – most recently when Department of Public Works director William Daniel said that bike paths are not a priority.
“I’m not sure that if you poll people in Baton Rouge that the lack of bike paths would come up in the top 20 problems that we need to address,” Daniel was quoted in The Advocate last week.
“It’s not a question of cost so much as a mentality,” Martin said, adding that incidents like Crowson’s can be influential in changing mentality.
“How many people do we need to sacrifice before someone says ‘Ok, ok?’ It helps in the sense that it’s a tragedy, and it makes people say ‘oh my god, why did this happen?’”
Nathaniel Crowson, 30, and Daniel Morris, 31, were traveling on Perkins Rd. near Quail Run Dr. when the two cyclists were struck by a motorist. Crowson died at the scene, while Morris was transported to the hospital and remained under a medically induced coma for multiple days. Supporters have erected a ghost bike memorial at the scene.
How to Help
The community has come together to help support Nathan Crowson’s family and Daniel Morris’ recovery in amazing ways. Mid City Bikes is currently holding a raffle for a Dolan Bike, proceeds going to help the family, while anyone who donates blood in the name of Daniel Morris will help him pay his medical bills. Check out Mid City Bikes, located at 2560 Government Street for more information, or call 225-636-5776.